Shakespeare’s famous tale of an improbable romantic alliance is so endlessly fascinating because it is so hard to read. Is it misogynist, or is it holding up male misogyny to ridicule? Is it a heartfelt tract about the all-consuming nature of love, or a farce that’s not meant to be taken remotely seriously?
In his ballet adaptation, Ballets de Monte-Carlo director-choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot bends it in yet another direction. Created in 2014 for the Bolshoi, set to a tapestry of works by Shostakovich, and here getting its British premiere, the tale becomes one of two similarly hopeless cases who must in fact “tame” each other.
It begins before curtain-up, with first soloist Anna Tikhomirova – the Bolshoi’s most consistently delectable dancer during this summer’s residency – setting the scene by slinking on in heels, swapping them for pointe shoes, and part coquettishly, part-sarcastically leading the opening applause for the conductor.
Suddenly, the curtains swish up to reveal the sleekly angular set (by Maillot’s regular collaborator Ernest Pignon-Ernest), and a stage bristling with movement. Maillot’s choreographic style is an eclectic, high-octane and often witty fusion of classical and modern, and it is only a matter of moments before he has the titular Katharina (Ekaterina Krysanova) fending off her would-be suitors with complex and fearsome barrages of high-kicks.
A world-class artist and supremely crisp and articulate mover, the beautifully proportioned Krysanova handles these scenes with brio, ferocity and strong comic nous, but subtly ups her game still further upon the arrival of Vladislav Lantratov’s venal Petruchio. Leonine of hair and Brando-esque of swagger, he’s a match for Krysanova’s Katharina not only in terms of the standard of his dancing (absolutely first-rate – good grief how fast and precisely he turns, how powerfully he takes to the air), but also for her aggression, which he bats off with an all-too-male smugness. He treats her atrociously – but she generally gives as good as she gets, and they expertly convey the sense of things starting to heat up between them.
Their most unforgettable clinch, however, comes not far into Act II, after their suitably bizarre wedding. He pretends to warm himself in front of a make-believe fire, whereupon she, realisation visibly dawning on her intelligent, elfin face, joins in with the ruse. A shared, secret understanding starts to develop, and this is soon fanned into a love scene of astonishing steaminess: all credit to Maillot for the eloquence and intimacy of his steps, but also to the two stars for their complete commitment.
The rest of the cast are similarly beyond reproach. As Katharina’s serene and adored sister, Bianca, Olga Smirnova is charm and elegance itself – when they’re on at the same time, it’s a little like watching Swan Lake’s Odette and Odile share a stage. As the Housekeeper – an invention of Maillot’s – Tikhomirova commands the stage like the principal-in-waiting that she surely is, a giddy combination of technical polish, comedic pizzazz and film-star femininity.
Complaints? Even in the context of the largely revamped plot, I’m not convinced that Petruchio’s treatment of Katharina need be quite so brutish, and very careful consultation of the synopsis is necessary beforehand – even with this, you may have perplexed moments. Pignon-Ernest’s minimalist sets, too, sometimes compete with the drama rather than complementing it.
But this remains a polished and very entertaining show, delivered by a company at the top of its game. Not only does it build to a conclusion with interesting things to say about the intoxicating complicity that develops in close relationships; at just two acts of 40 minutes, it doesn’t waste a second getting us there. An eccentric but definite success.
Season runs until August 13. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk